This morning Paddy Ashdown is on the Andrew Marr programme to launch More United, a project I’ve been heavily involved in. The team includes Martha Lane Fox, Dan Snow, Caroline Criado-Perez and Luke Pritchard (yes, the one from The Kooks), plus a wide range of others from across society.
I’ll very briefly explain what it is, and then why we’ve done it now.
More United is a new movement aimed at the millions of people who believe in open, tolerant, progressive politics but don’t want to join a political party. We’ll use crowdfunding to raise money and support any candidate, from any party, who is prepared to support our five founding principles.
So, why have we done this now?
Firstly, some context. In politics, money matters. That’s a reality that many of us (me included) don’t like, but a reality it is.
Having more money than your opponent can be decisive in a close election, so the people writing the cheques wield huge and often unaccountable power.
On the left, the Trade Unions contribute the overwhelming bulk of Labour’s money. Trade Unions are a great thing, and we need them, but having a party so totally reliable on a single source of income cannot be healthy.
On the right, most of the Conservative party’s money comes from big business, and often from the kinds of businesses that aren’t subject to much public scrutiny. Again, big business are not bad things, but having them wield so much power is not healthy.
Here’s an example. In the recent EU referendum we saw Aaron Banks write a cheque for £11m to support the leave campaign, an amount of money that undoubtably swung the result his way.
Once you realise who’s paying the bills, it doesn’t take long to realise why our politics is being dragged to the extremes, on all sides.
So how can we fix it?
Well, let’s first say what we can’t do. We can’t just wish the system to be different. And we can’t just talk about it.
Right now, the forces of extremism are winning every major fight in our politics. Brexit is merely the latest instalment in an ongoing saga. If the solution to the crisis in our democracy was people who already agreed with each other sitting in meetings and talking then we wouldn’t be in this mess.
If we want things to be different, we need to think differently.
We also need to do something that makes sense in the modern world.
Digital organisations are, one at a time, disrupting every part of our society. Companies like Uber and Amazon succeed because they understand that the internet isn’t just a way to do things faster or cheaper, it’s a way to do things that could never be done before.
That same revolution will come to politics. It’s inevitable.
However current political parties (and I count myself as a proud member of one) are never going to be that distributive force. All parties work on a model that involves a relatively small number of people doing a huge amount of work. Even the smallest useful activity is a big commitment. Not only is it hard to get lots of people to do those things, it’s also the opposite of how most people want to do politics.
It is absolutely not the case that the British public aren’t interested in politics. They’re just not that interested in political parties.
Organisations like 38 Degrees and Change.org have shown us that there are millions of people who care enough about politics to take small actions around specific causes, and critically to tell their friends about them. However rather than seeing those actions as the start of a journey towards the deeper commitment that party politics requires, we need to find a model that makes those actions useful in themselves.
More United isn’t 38 Degrees or Crowdpac.com. Those platforms exist to provide anyone with tools to advocate for anything they care about, and they’re really good at it. But what they (deliberately) don’t have is a binding set of principles that their members hold in common.
That’s what makes More United a movement, not a platform.
But we’re not a political party, and we’re not trying to replace political parties. In fact, we need political parties to succeed for More United to succeed. What we are trying to do is give the millions of people who deeply care about politics but don’t like party politics a way to influence the outcome of elections.
It’s struck me in the last few weeks, as I’ve been talking to people who are “in the bubble” about this idea, how much political people look at the world from Westminster out. The questions I get are all about how More United will effect the existing parties, is it good for this party or bad for that one, and the underlying assumption that something that’s good for one party must be bad for all the others.
That, to me, perfectly demonstrates our problem.
When we frame everything across party lines we immediately start with what divides us rather than that unites us.
If we’re going to stop letting the extremists win, that has to change.
Will it work? Who knows, but it’s worth a try, because as someone who used to be Prime Minister once said, we can’t go on like this.